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Philadelphia Ceili Group

Dance, Music

Remembering Eugene O’Donnell

The world of Irish music and dance is mourning the passing of the supremely gifted fiddler Eugene O’Donnell. News of his death came Friday, June 28, from his longtime musical partner, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Mick Moloney.

In the Philadelphia area, he is best known for that partnership. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Ceili Group.

As a fiddler, he was renowned for his mastery of slow airs—although he certainly had a broad repertoire—but for many in this region, he was also known as one of the greatest step dancers ever to have taken to the floor.

According to Compass Records, for which he recorded, O’Donnell “began Irish dancing at the age of three and was the first Irish dancer ever to dance on television in London at the age of 12, all the while playing and perfecting Derry-style Irish fiddling. As a teen, O’Donnell won an unprecedented five consecutive All-Ireland dancing championships.”

O’Donnell arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in 1957. From there, it didn’t take long for him to begin sharing his many gifts.

Many recall him for his superb musical skills, but they also remember him as one of the finest, most inventive, and occasionally the most exacting of dance instructors. Continue Reading

Music, Photo Essays, Photos

Beoga Beguiles (Again!)

As Eamon Murray pointed out from the stage in the Ballroom at the Irish Center last night, a lot has changed in the 10 years since Beoga last played here. But the most important thing hasn’t changed: Murray, Liam Bradley, Niamh Dunne, Seán Óg Graham and Damien McKee are still Beoga and still know how to bewitch their audience.

It’s a pretty mean feat to bring 200 people out to listen to trad music on a Thursday night in mid-May with less than a month’s notice, but that is exactly what went down at the concert brought to you by the Philadelphia Ceili Group and the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center last night. Continue Reading


Help Bring a Hot New Band to the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival



It’s time to pay the piper.

And the fiddler, accordion player, flutist, guitarist, and bodhran player.

In short, the entire band known as FullSet.

You can bring this exciting ensemble of scary-good young musicians to the 40th annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival in early September … but the time to raise the cash necessary to hire the band is running short.

The Ceili Group is racing to meet a tight deadline to raise a minimum of $4,000, a substantial chunk of which is required to hire FullSet for the Ceili Group, a three-day extravaganza of Irish music, dance and culture, and one of the highlights of the Philadelphia folk scene.

“We have to have the goal raised by April 1 in order to book FullSet,” says Ceili Group Rosaleen McGill, the Ceili Group member who heard about the band and suggested featuring them at the festival. “Right now, they’re on a contingency. If we can’t meet the goal, we’ll have to release them.”

To bring in the bucks, the Ceili Group is turning to crowd-funding—typically, raising small amounts of cash online with the help of a large number of contributors. There are many crowd-funding websites. The Ceili Group is using a site called indiegogo.

“This is the way a lot of people are raising funds like that,” says McGill. “It’s a reasonable goal. I really trust in our community to help us raise the money and support the festival. The Ceili Group has touched a lot of people. We have a history of 40 years, bringing musicians over to Philadelphia before they hit it big. FullSet is affordable. They’re just coming up. They were up in Bethlehem at the Celtic Connections Festival last year. We’re hoping to tap into anyone who saw them up there.”

There’s another reason to bring FullSet to Philly, aside from their formidable performance skills. They also happen to be great teachers, says McGill. One of the highlights of the festival is the opportunity for up close and personal musical instrument instruction by performers. Some of the world’s finest Irish traditional musicians have shared their knowledge at the event, so making the musicians of FullSet available for workshops to is a real bonus.

Another great musician, the world-renowned singer Seán Keane, has already been booked.

Aside from the money required to hire FullSet, McGill says the Ceili Group hopes to apply some of the website contributions toward improving festival publicity.

“Last year, when we had a grant (from Pew), we did a lot of ads, and they seemed to really get people in the door. That’s another thing we were really going for. The more money we raise, the more if those ad opportunities we can get.”

As of today, the Ceili Group has raised $750 toward its goal, with 39 days left in the campaign. You can help close the gap. Visit


Her Remarkable Career

Joanie and CTL

Joanie and CTL

She’s been described as “irrepressible,” “a force of nature.”

If you’ve seen Joanie Madden in concert, whether as the founder and leader of Cherish the Ladies, a gifted musical collaborator, or as a solo artist, you know it’s all true, and then some.

You’re not alone. In fact, some real heavy hitters also recognize the inexhaustible creativity of champion flute and whistle virtuoso Joanie Madden.

Let’s start with the United States Artists. In 2012, the nonprofit awarded Madden a $50,000 USA Artist Fellowship grant in recognition of her artistry. She’s the first Irish traditional musician to have been so honored.

In 2011, she was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, also because of her contributions to music and to Irish culture in the United States.

Madden, who will join Gabriel Donohue next Friday night for a largely informal Rambling House at the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival, takes it all in stride. Not that she doesn’t feel honored, but she’s so busy doing the very thing that brought her to the attention of those prestigious institutions in the first place: playing her music, seemingly everywhere and all the time.

“I did have a great year, winning the USA Fellowship. That was a big one,” Madden says. “It’s great to have it, and it does make all the hard work worthwhile, but I’d be doing this whether I got the trophy or not.”

Thank goodness for that. Take a look at Madden’s recent musical resume, and it’s clear she has no intention of slowing down, or doing the things that keep the creative juices flowing.

Already a Grammy winner and featured on the final “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack, more recently she contributed to the soundtrack of the BBC America series “Copper.”

Madden has always been in demand as a collaborator on projects outside of her duties with Cherish the Ladies. In 2008, she was featured on the TV show and CD “Absolutely Irish,” which featured a who’s who of Irish musical talent, including Mick Moloney, Seamus Egan, John Doyle, Liz Carroll, and many more. In 2009 she performed on “Pride of New York,” a gem of an Irish traditional recording also featuring Brian Conway on fiddle, Brendan Dolan on keyboards, and accordionist Billy McComiskey.

Probably her most treasured recent collaboration was with her own father, button accordion player Joe Madden, on 2011’s inspiring “A Galway Afternoon.” Also on the CD: Madden’s brother John on drums, pianist Charlie Lennon .. and our own Gabriel Donohue on guitar.

“Galway Afternoon” was easily one of the best CD recordings of Irish that year, and possibly any year. It was another notable triumph.
Of course, what made the album so memorable was the playing of Joe Madden, who was essentially ambushed by his daughter and coaxed into recording, which is not something he ever wanted to do. And what made it so poignant was that Joe Madden’s gift was captured just a few months before he died following a fall in his home.

Madden still feels the loss, but she too is extremely pleased that she was able to capture such an amazing performance, sharing that particular honor with her reluctant dad. “I was just so thrilled that we got it. That’s why you live today and you grab today. He was very happy he made that album, without a doubt.”

With a force like Joe Madden around, it’s not surprising that the family’s Bronx home was a gathering place for many of the best Irish traditional musicians. Still, nothing could have prepared her for her remarkable career.

“When I started out as a musician, the only Irish band that was really making it was The Chieftains,” Madden recalls. “The last thing my parents wanted me to do was to go into the music, except on weekends. I never knew I’d be happy doing that. But I practiced day and night. I just loved it.”

The came a point where Madden knew what truly made her happy, and she made her decision. “I said to my father, ‘I’m going to travel and play my music around the world.’ He said, ‘You’re out of your mind.'”

Later on, of course, Joe Madden came around, she says. “He was just thrilled.”

Collaborations aside, no discussion of Joanie Madden would be complete without mention of Cherish the Ladies, one of the first and most inventive Irish traditional supergroups. Aft 27 years of touring and recording, it’s Cherish the Ladies that continues to dominate her life. Happily, of course.

“My first commitment is a hundred percent to the band,” Madden says.”We’re all great friends, even today. You’re on the road with these guys for so many years, you get to become great, great friends–even like sisters. They’re always there when you need them.”

Which brings us back to where we started. When you think about a Cherish the Ladies concert, there’s no getting past Madden’s incredible humor and her intuitive rapport with the audience. It probably seems like second nature … but it wasn’t always that way. “I got over my shyness on the stage. I realized somebody had to do it. I remember going to see a show with the “Cars,” and they didn’t say anything all night.”

It’s that legendary ebullience, along with her undeniable talents, that have made her who she is today. For that, Madden continues to be grateful, even when the going gets tough.

“Some of our travel days are just torture,” Madden admits. “You get off a plane, and then you have to drive two or three hours. But as soon as you get on the stage, the adrenaline kicks in. I mean, I’m able to out food in the table for blowing the penny whistle. Come on.”

Tickets are still on sale for the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival. Details and schedule here.

Dance, Music

Festival Time Is Just Around the Corner

Nuala Kennedy

Nuala Kennedy

We’re just a year away from the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival. What started out as a one-day outdoor event at Fischer’s Pool, above Lansdale, is now a three-day celebration of Irish music, dance and culture headquartered at that most Irish of Philadelphia places, the Commodore Barry Club at Carpenter and Emlen in the city’s Mount Airy neighborhood.

We recently chatted with the Ceili Group’s Anne McNiff, to find out what to expect at this year’s festival.

Is it hard for you to believe this is the 39th anniversary?

No, I guess not for me. I’ve only been around for a couple of them. Some of my fellow board members are more generationally tied to it. It might be harder for them to believe. Fischer’s Pool was a big, sprawling property, and it was all outside. That must have been logistically interesting!

What’s new this year?

This year, one of the big changes is that we’re going to have, running currently with the ceili back in the ballroom is a “rambling house” in the Fireside Room in the front of the house. In past years we’ve had a concert on that night, but it just has never taken off the way we would have liked it to. We wanted to have another option for people on Friday night. The rambling house is a little less formal than a concert. Gabriel Donohue is hosting it, and he’s a great entertainer all by himself. He’s hosted the singers’ night in the past, so we know what a good host he is. He’ll invite people to come up and give a song or a recitation. He’ll have the opportunity to invite different musicians to come up and play, maybe along with him, maybe by themselves.

It’s a huge plus that he has relationships with many musicians, not just here in New York, but in New York. He’s gotten Joanie Madden to come here as a guest. She’s certainly going to be a draw. It will be much less formal than what a regular concert would be. That is a big change.

It seems like you have always favorites, some sure-fire hits, like (singer) Matt Ward.

Matt Ward is really a perennial favorite. We get a lot of comments about Matt; he doesn’t sing locally a lot. Frank Malley (longtime festival chairman) was the first to bring him on board. It’s become a tradition for Matt to be invited to come by on Singers’ Night. (Thursday the 12th.) People say they don’t get to see him, except at this place and this time.

Looks like the Saturday workshops are free for Ceili Group members.

Last year we had the lovely opportunity to offer our workshops for free. That aspect of the festival was being funded by a grant. We had such a great response to that. We used it as a way to attract people to the festival, and to get them to commit to membership. It was such a positive thing that, when we talked about what to do differently, we agreed that we wanted to carry that on again this year.

This year we have a couple of new workshops, including an Irish calligraphy workshop. Also very cool and a little bit of a departure, we have local author Kenneth Milano, who will be doing a workshop from 3:30 to 5:30 on the Philadelphia nativist riots.

This year for your Saturday night concert, you have Tony DeMarco’s band, and (singer and flutist) Nuala Kennedy. That’s an interesting pairing.

Tony, of course, has played at Philadelphia Ceili Group events before, so he has to be an old favorite. Nuala Kennedy, on the other hand … she’s new. She’s not played a lot in Philadelphia. She has a big following in Europe, and I believe in New York, I know she tours a lot. She is all over the place.

I saw her some time ago at Gene Shay’s Song Salon. He was hosting it in a small venue that had all kinds of eclectic acts, and Nuala Kennedy was one of them. She and I got to talking. I told her that we do a big festival, and I asked her, is this something you’d be interested in, and she was. Recently, we got back in contact. I found out she tours not just with (guitarist) John Doyle but also with (guitarist, bouzouki player and singer) Eamon O’Leary. I just love the idea of introducing her to a broader Philadelphia audience. People are going to love her.

Want to learn more? Click here for the full lineup.

Dance, Music

A Look Back at the 2012 Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival

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Constance the Butterfly

From singers’ night last Thursday to Saturday’s smashing finale, a concert by the legendary Dé Danann, the 2012 Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival was far and away one of the most popular and best attended ever.

Probably the best sign of success was the Saturday Dé Danann show, with opener, the uillean piper Paddy Keenan accompanied by Dé Danann bouzouki player Alec Finn. The Irish Center ballroom was as packed as it’s ever been, with a lot of late-arriving concert-goers going chairless. They didn’t seem to mind. Dé Danann, with the luminescent singer Eleanor Shanley belting out tunes, was incredibly sharp for a band that was formed at about the time the Pleistocene era was ending. OK, maybe not that long ago, but there sure was a lot of gray hair up onstage.

Earlier in the day, festival-goers had their choice of things to do, from face-painting with the kids to dancing lessons to musical workshops with the likes of Dé Danann iconic bodhran player Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh.

Sean Tyrrell’s one-man show, “Who Killed James Joyce,” was likewise well attended on Friday night.

We were there for most of it, and we have the pictures to prove it.

Check them out:


Living a Dream Come True

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Mick Conneely (© 2011 Con Kelleher)

Fiddler Mick Conneely won’t forget the first time he saw the pioneering Irish folk group De Danann live, every last detail permanently etched into his memory.

“I was 15. It was Sunday the 23rd of May 1982. It was the first time I saw them live, a concert my teacher Brendan Mulkere had organized, in Slough, a town south of London. It was dinner time. Me and my dad went. It was the ‘Star Spangled Molly’ tour, my favorite album. It was the only time I was starstruck.”

Conneely, born in Bedford, England, to Irish dad and fiddle player Mick and mum Lizzi, in a home where Irish music was ever present, had been playing fiddle under Mulkere’s tutelage since he was 11. Mulkere must have thought pretty highly of the young man’s abilities, because, Conneely recalls, “didn’t Mr. Mulkere drag me by the scruff of my neck up to the stage to play solo during the intermission?”

Conneely nearly passed out from fear, but the terror quickly passed as he started to play sets from the 1977 duet album, “Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn.”

Looking back, he says, “it was a brilliant exposure. For the first five minutes I was afraid for my life, but then the butterflies turned into something else.”

Gavin, he recalls, was mightily impressed that his young friend had chosen to play tunes from that album, which Conneely describes as his favorite, both then and now. “When I met the lads afterward, Frankie gave me a hug,” he recalls, still sounding like that starstruck kid. “I was on a high from it for years afterward.”

Conneely kept on plugging away devotedly at his fiddle, playing at sessions, ceilis and house parties, in time maturing into a young virtuoso. Then, in 1984, when Conneely was 17, his parents allowed him to accompany some other young musicians to the Willie Clancy Summer School Festival in the West Clare Irish traditional music hotbed of Miltown Malbay. He suddenly found himself surrounded by the royalty of Irish music.

“You’d hear music in a pub, with the likes of Frankie and Mary Bergin and Jackie Daly. It was just unbelieveable. You couldn’t dream it. I’d never been exposed to that level of music. It changed my whole life. 1987 was the year I knew I would be playing till the day I die. What I experienced in Miltown Malbay would never leave me.”

The members of De Danann didn’t forget about Conneely either, as he found out in 1991, when he was 24 years old. What happened then was musical kismet.

“I toured America with the band,” he says, a note of awe still in his voice. “Frankie had broken his arm or his wrist just before the tour, and I got a call from the tour coordinator.” At first he thought it was his childhood friend, now Lunasa frontman Kevin Crawford, playing a joke on him, but it soon became clear: This was no joke.

“That was unbelievable. I knew the tunes, there was no learning curve at all. Why I was thought of, I have no idea to this day, really. I was totally honored and blown away. Imagine being a guitarist and getting a call from Mick Jagger. I went over a boy and came home a man, musically speaking.”

So began a relationship with De Danann that has lasted years, as Conneely became established as Frankie Gavin’s stand-in. He did a couple of tours after that, and a couple of one-off concerts.

Conneely is on the tour that will take De Danann through Philadelphia on Saturday, September 8, for the grand finale concert of the 38th Annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival at the Philadelphia Irish Center in Mount Airy. He’ll join De Danann originals, bouzouki wizard Alec Finn and bodhran player Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, together with the great singer Eleanor Shanley, accordion player Derek Hickey, and Brian McGrath on piano and banjo.

Of course, this incarnation of De Danann is absent Frankie Gavin. The band split up in 2003. Conneely says he doesn’t harbor any illusions that he can take Gavin’s place. “No one can really replace Frankie. He’s still my favorite fiddle player. He’d lift anyone’s soul.”

For now, though, Mick Conneely is happy to share the stage with the band that most inspired him as a kid. “Looking back now,” he says, “I realize I’m the luckiest guy on earth. I’ve realized many of my ambitions, which is rare. Some dreams do come true.”

Learn more about the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival.


August 24, 2012 by
Dance, Music

Dazzling Lineup for the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival

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Courtney Malley, with a portrait of her late father Frank

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since Dé Danann last graced the stage at the Philadelphia Ceili Group’s annual festival. Twenty-five years and a few personnel changes, to be exact.

But have no doubt that the version of Dé Danann that takes to the Philadelphia Irish Center stage Saturday night, September 8, at the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival is the genuine article. Founding members Alec Finn and Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh will be joined by past members Brian McGrath, Derek Hickey, Eleanor Shanley, and Mick Conneely.

Anne McNiff, secretary of the Philadelphia Ceili Group, expects an amazing night of music from the band, and from the opener, acclaimed uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, as well.

McNiff says Dé Danann’s appearance culminates the Ceili Group’s year-long series featuring music from the west of Ireland. “The band originally came from the Galway area, and that’s where they currently list themselves as being from,” McNiff says. “Also we wanted to pick a band that would be a grand finale for the music series. We thought the band would be popular, attracting Ceili Group members as well as others. Many people are familiar with the name Dé Danann, and revivals are all the rage right now.”

This particular revival won’t represent a radical departure from the sound the band is known for, says McNiff.

“At the core, they certainly have a sound that they’re known for. It’s the way the band plays with each other that makes them great.”

So that takes care of the festival finale, but there’s a whole lot of Irish music, dance and culture on the agenda in the days leading up to the Saturday night concert.

Thursday night (September 6) is singers night, dedicated to vocal music, and dedicated to the memory of the late Ceili Group leading light Frank Malley, who dearly loved songs. Look for performances by Rosaleen McGill, Matt Ward, Marian Makins, and others. The night is hosted by Gabriel Donohue.

Friday night (September 7), you’ll be able to dance to the music of the McGillians & Friends, or you can grab a chair in the cozy Fireside Room to take in a brilliant little one-man show, “Who Killed James Joyce,” by troubadour Sean Tyrrell. McNiff is looking forward to that performance.

“We have had Sean Tyrrell before. He is famous for these one-man shows. This is his latest, and he’ll be presenting not only works from Joyce, but other Irish poets as well. While it’s not a theatre piece, it has theatrical aspects to it. Sean’s shows very much incorporate the spoken word as much as the music. We really wanted to present something different in the Fireside Room, which is a smaller, more intimate venue. It’s more of a pub-like experience.”

Earlier in the day Saturday features a wide range of workshops, from Irish singing to the irish language. There will also be live music throughout the day, kiddie activities, vendors, and of course delicious food and drink.

You can find out more about the festival by visiting the Ceili Group website.

August 10, 2012 by